Personal History - GMJ
I arrived in MK in May 1979 in preparation for the opening of the shopping centre the following August where my husband was the new manager of a large retail unit. The building of the new store was history in itself being the first new build by the company for some years. The shopping centre, which at the time was the biggest in Europe attracted visitors from a very wide area.
One of the first major benefits of the new precinct was how accessible everything was to wheelchair users. In fact, we had one of the first ‘wheelchair loan’ facilities in the country which still operates today. It was extremely moving to talk to wheelchair users lunching in Woolworths cafeteria, enjoying their first meal out in years, making me realise how discriminated against these people had been for years. Fortunately laws have now been passed so that situation should rarely exist.
Coming from a sleepy village in the Cotswolds, to say the new city was a culture shock was an understatement. The first thing I felt was that everybody seemed to be so aggressive – I guess this was the start of city life for a country girl. Something I would quickly adapt to and learn to love – now recognising it as vibrancy. It really was to become an exciting place to live.
My daughters readily embraced school life – it was totally unlike anything they had experienced before having come from long established areas. The huge ethnic mix in the new city was the start of a very interesting educational and cultural exchange for them. Like all things there were down sides. My eldest daughter (having previously attended a former grammar school where strict uniform rules applied and pupils had to address teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’) was now able to go to school in her jeans and call teachers by their Christian names. I think it was probably only a ‘down’ side for the parents! This obviously was a whole new concept and was indicative of life to come.
The city, which seemed in comparison to previous places I have lived, is built on a grid system designed by Webber with each grid being named to encompass some of its previous history. This made MK particularly easy to navigate once you realised that the H roads were horizontal and went from East to West and the V roads being vertical running from North to South. Each grid had a ‘community house’ where a member of the Development Corporation would attend for a number of hours each week. This was an invaluable source of contact as most of us had been drafted in for work purposes and had no friends or family in the area making it a lonely place. They could answer any queries you might have, and believe me there were many – we were all new so nobody knew where anything was. Through the community house one of my first involvements outside my immediate family was by volunteering to help settle the boat people who arrived from Vietnam. They arrived with only the clothes they stood up in which were totally unsuitable for our changeable seasons so helping them settle in was a very rewarding experience. Trying to teach them a few basic English words brought many laughs along the way with their total in ability to pronounce the letter ‘R’ so they frequently said ‘solly’ when they got something wrong. They were kind and gentle people and it was a joy to work with them.
We witnessed our first annual fireworks display which was unlike anything we had ever seen before and judging by the amount of people there, we were not alone in this. The parks were plentiful and well equipped with everything being geared to family life. Gradually new groups and organisations sprang up and it seemed that whatever your hobby or interest there was somebody you could share it with. If not, there was assistance to start your own group.
The thing that early residents benefited from was the wide open spaces which no longer exist. However, in 1979 there were 40,000 residents whilst now I think there are something in the regions of 270,000 – they had to go somewhere. Having said that, the city has been thoughtfully planned so that no matter where anybody lives they are never more than a few minutes stroll from a green area. In the early days another benefit was that all ethnic groups were more integrated whereas nowadays they tend to group together which I feel is a loss to both sectors with some, particularly the women who tend to spend more time in their homes, being unable to obtain a grasp of the English language.
With the population of the new town expanding at such an enormous rate there were inevitable down sides as the development of the infrastructure struggled to keep pace. One such problem was the total lack domestic telephone lines – we had to wait 10 months for ours to be installed. Of course there were no such things as cell phones in those days so the only way to contact family and friends who did not live in the area was to queue at the local telephone box. (I suspect that there are many of our younger residents who will have no idea that such a thing existed). You took your life in your hands if it was raining and you had more than one call to make. It was not uncommon for the next person in the queue to open the door and tell you to get a move on.
Another problem that early residents experienced was the absence of a hospital – we had a small four- ward community hospital but emergency cases had to travel to Stoke Mandeville or Northampton which was extremely stressful if you were really sick or injured. This being a new city with many young people we had a particularly high birth rate and I have many friends who have experienced the bumpy ride to either of the aforementioned hospitals whilst in the advanced stages of labour. A very uncomfortable and frightening experienced. The main hospital was not built until 1984 with a second phase being erected 1988-1992. Expansion and the building of specialised units still continues along with the growth in population in Milton Keynes.
My children and grandchildren have grown up in Milton Keynes so it is very much my home now. The whole family has experienced so many ‘firsts’ here. The shopping precinct, McDonald’s which was the favourite venue for childhood birthday parties. The annual fireworks display. The Christmas extravaganza in Middleton Hall was like nothing we had seen before and in more recent years the indoor ski slope and the sky diving centre at City Limits were new exciting things to experience.
It has been so exciting to be part of the growth and development of Milton Keynes which leaves me wondering what the newcomers of today will reflect on in 30 or so years time.